Cry, The Beloved Country: On Norway and Innocence Lost

This essay originally appeared in BlogHer.

My Norwegian Grandmother, Else Hoem, and Me

My Grandmother, Else Hoem, and me.

It’s been nearly a month since Anders Behring Breivik wreaked havoc in Oslo and Utoeya island and while the rest of the world has moved on to the next headline, Norway, and those who love it, have just begun to develop a measured response. I mourn the Norway of my childhood, the birthplace my mother.

Given the recent violence, I am grappling for words to express the loss I feel not so much for myself, but for the idea of what once was. The Norway I knew was a place of laughter and ease, untroubled by the pressing issues weighing down the rest of the world. Now, tragically, it is a place where even hate can fester and cause deep and, perhaps, even irreparable damage. I lament innocence lost.

As a child, we only visited the home of my mother’s youth occasionally, but still my first memories are from Norway. Hearing the horses race on the track below the hill where my grandparents lived. Searching for blueberries on the mountainside above and then eating them until my fingers were blue and my mother’s smile was stained purple. Waiving the red, white and blue flag that lacked stars but still had its stripes at special occasions, or holidays, or just any old day. I loved it there. I still do.

My mother left Norway at the age of seventeen to study in England. She met my American father there and the rest, as they say, is history. When she came to the United States in 1961, her English was as good as a high school student’s could be. She learned to be American by watching television. Commercials and soap operas were her teachers. The news, with its daily lessons in social and political upheaval, was too disturbing for a life already chaotic with change. She did her best to assimilate and that meant, or so she believed, wearing her pearls, cooking canapes, and vacuuming in her best dress and girdle just as she saw on TV.

Soon her accent was gone and the only things tying her to her homeland were memories, a few select recipes, and her insistence we celebrate Norway’s National Day each year on May 17th. As lonely as my mother must have been, she hid her sorrow except on that one special day. Then, she would overrule our complaining, force us to dress up in our intricately embroidered Norwegian national costumes, and insist we march in the annual parade in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I remember rivulets of tears streaming down her cheeks as she watched us wave the flag of her native country and eat the food of her youth.

Celebrating Norway's National Day

As much as I complained, I loved the annual tradition. It reinforced for me the fact that my mother was different, special, not your typical American housewife and by inference, that must mean I was special too. My friends went to Des Moines and Pasadena to visit relatives; mine were halfway around the world. And while we traveled back to Norway on only a occasions as I was growing up, being Norwegian was central to my identity.

For me, Norway is not just a place my forebears came from, it is an ideal of how we might all be if only we were the best of ourselves. Despite rumors to the contrary, Norwegians are fair and reasonable and fun and loving. And they are enlightened. They implement policies that mean every citizen is cared for, their women enjoy full societal participation, and their men even take paternity leave with no consequence to their careers (!). Egalitarianism is the norm. This is the country that invented both the highest peace prize and the highest literary prize in all the world. What is not to love about a peace-loving, literate people?

In 1985, I insisted my then boyfriend, now husband, Bill, join me on a trip back to my mother’s country to see this place to which I felt so deeply connected. It would be the first of a series of family reunions scheduled every five years to honor great grandparents Willa and Jodem Hoem, whose union was the base of my extended family tree.

After dinner one night on that first visit, as we strolled the promenade along the bay, Bill said, “I love this country — everyone looks just like you.”

And it was true. Norway of 1985 was a sea of blonds with blue eyes making my Italian-American boyfriend stand out. Beyond Oslo, so rare was it to see someone dark complexioned that I remember being shocked when I saw a dark-skinned man speaking Norwegian behind the counter at the tiny country store near my grandmother’s house. His family, I learned, had immigrated from Pakistan some thirty years before and had found success opening a small chain of convenience stores. Integration did not seem a problem for them, but I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to pioneer the first wave of newcomers to this fair-haired nation. My grandmother insisted the “foreigners” were welcome in her community and that, of course, says it all.

In the years since, I have traveled back for each family reunion, rekindling my connection and marveling at the change in my mother’s country. Now, Norway is no longer exclusively blond and blue-eyed. The influx of Vietnamese, Iraqis, Somalis, and Pakistanis in addition to the Poles and Swedes have made Norway a veritable United Nations. Until just a few weeks ago, it was a symbol to me of how integration can be successfully achieved if the strains of financial limitations are ameliorated.

As you probably know, Norway is one of the richest countries on Earth. The discovery of oil off the coast in the North Sea in the early 1970s has enabled this country of four million to be the model of forward-thinking living. Socialized medicine, subsidized child care, sophisticated education systems are just a few of the ways in which Norway cares for its citizens. And, with a vacation policy that ensures families have deep and extended time together, Norwegians are able to manage and create and inspire the world.

In fact, my cousin Astrid is a perfect example of what I am talking about. She is active in local Labor Party politics, vociferous on the rights of the “new Norwegians,” and has ambitions for higher office one day in the not-so-distant future. I met her last summer when I took my three children back for yet another reunion. Sixteen-year-old Astrid quickly befriended my son of the same age. They spent the long weekend talking about cross-cultural differences and doing what Norwegians do so well: having fun.

This summer Astrid was invited to participate in a prestigious Labor Party youth camp. The good news is she was one of the survivors on Utoeya island and one day, she will be ready to tell her story. In the meantime, I pray her efforts to celebrate multiculturalism will not fall on deaf ears. Because, if a fully realized multi-cultural society can not succeed in Norway, with its vast riches, open and democratic populace, where can it succeed?

Americans can mark their history by those “moments when.” We remember where we were the moment Kennedy was shot, the moment Nixon resigned, the moment the Challenger exploded, and the many moments the Towers fell. Sadly, now Norwegians have their moment too.

After 9/11, we had an opportunity to show the world how to recover from a tragedy. Sentiment was on our side. We could have taken the moral high ground, punished those directly responsible, and perhaps even altered international relations in meaningful and important ways. Instead, we armed ourselves and raced to war. Our innocence has been forever lost. Given the recent events, I wonder how Norway will respond.

My hope is that they will do what we could not, and model how to recover when evil descends. One female survivor, perhaps it was my cousin Astrid, said, “If one man can show so much hate, imagine how much love we all can show each other.” 

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26 responses to “Cry, The Beloved Country: On Norway and Innocence Lost

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  6. Lisen,
    Earlier today I had a conversation with a local mom who recently returned from her family’s annual summer holiday in Norway. (Her husband is Norwegian.) Think they arrived in Norway only 9 days after this tragedy. I found her perspective interesting and uplifting. She said that while the event was all over the media, nobody seemed to be talking about it. But, there was quite a bit of support for the killer’s mother. Nobody blamed her. Rather, the public sort of rallied around her. Offered support, as people recognized the unique pain she must be feeling. My friend and I discussed cultural differences between Norway and the US. Here, we are a country of individualists; and we tend to look for individuals to blame when something like this happens. Like when a young person shoots a Congresswoman and her constituents. Or brings a gun to school and goes on a rampage. Often, we look immediate toward the parents: what horrible, neglectful home did they create that allowed their children to become killers? Didn’t seem to be in the Norwegian mindset, in my friend’s opinion. She concluded that the Norwegian character is still, very much, intact. Norway is mourning; but it has not changed. Thought you’d be interested.

    • Sue,
      It reminds me of the Amish who rallied around the wife and children of the man who killed their children a few years back. Ah, if we could all be filled with such compassion.
      Thanks for reading.
      Lisen

  7. I have had the pleasure of working in Norway as a performer many times. I was always pleased by the kindness of the people there. One of my dearest friends lives in Oslo today and I was horrified that something like this could have happened. Thank you for sharing your feelings. I really enjoyed your wonderful writing and what you expressed through it.

  8. Lisen,

    Thanks for your gifted writing in this post and for the post about Steve Jobs.

    I had a strong sense of being Norwegian growing up and had the wonderful opportunity to go back and meet family in 2000 in Bergen.

    I’m glad to hear that your cousin, Astrid, survived that horrific day and will pray for emotional healing for all! I know that day was devastating for Norwegians worldwide! None of my immediate family were harmed.

    When we personally went through three hurricanes in six weeks in 2004, I learned something from Psalm 107. Because of the strong ties to the sea, it resonates… God brings us out of life’s storms.

    (If you want to read about our storm and the sailors of Psalm 107, I wrote it here: http://mikeandsus.org/2011/08/when-we-lost-most-of-our-roof-to-a-storm/)

  9. “This is the country that invented both the highest peace prize and the highest literary prize in all the world.”

    Nope, it was the Swedes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_prize

    Espen, Oslo

  10. Thank you for this great story from Norway Lisen. We all here in Norway are trying to get us back to life after the terrible tragedy. We are a small country but we are one unified people (Vi er ett lite land, men vi er ett samlet folk) Many greetings from Norway.

  11. I visited Norway for 2 weeks this summer – and left 10 days before the crazy man wreaked havoc. I write historical fiction and all of my heroes have the same ancestral home: Arendal, Norway. WHAT a beautiful country! WHAT wonderful people! What a blessing it was to visit there.

    http://www.kristualla.com

  12. I like the coincidence that I came across your blog reading of Steve Jobs’ neighbor and I ended up finding out she’s half Norwegian 🙂
    I spent a year studying in Trondheim, and until then I could have never imagined a country’s National day could mean so much.
    Nice piece,
    Ha det bra!

  13. Wonderful, Lisen.

  14. Beautiful piece, Lisen!

  15. Becky,
    Thanks for your kind comments. I, too, believe Norwegians will overcome this because kindness and goodness will prevail.
    Best,
    Lisen

  16. My heart breaks for Norway. I’m a Norwegian-by-marriage, and my children have been visiting family in Norway since they were tiny. Thanks to social media and contacts all over the world, I watched in horror as events unfolded on the screen in front of me. I believe in the goodness and kindness of Norway, and I believe Norwegians will overcome this.

  17. Thank you for sharing this, Lisen. You offered a very personal and measured post.

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